One reason bottom-up does better: Try, try, try again

In this post, I wrote that bottom-up systems tend to do better than top-down systems. In the following post, I expand on the #1 reason why I think that is.

I use to think feedbacks were the most important difference between productive and unproductive organizations or systems.

I don’t anymore.

I still think feedbacks are important and much can be gained from addressing feedback problems. But, I think something else makes the difference between good and bad: The number of trials.

I credit Nassim Taleb for planting this thought in my head. In one of his books he said something like capitalism doesn’t work because of profits and losses [feedbacks], it works because it induces a lot of trials and some of those happen to work.

I think Jeff Bezos understands this idea about trials. But, I don’t think many others do.

We see success stories after the fact and credit visionary leadership, brilliant insights and clever innovations, but this is too simple of a view of what really happened.

Since Taleb planted this idea I started noticing other things about success stories.

I noticed that for every success, there were dozens or more failures. Successful people are often brilliant. We conclude that to be the cause of their success, but that doesn’t account for the failures that are often led by equally bright people. Why did one succeed while the others didn’t? That gets tougher to distinguish.

A story Taleb tells about dolphins illustrates this well. We hear about dolphins pushing to shore people who are stranded at sea and conclude dolphins know what they’re doing and are kind and gentle. Maybe that’s true. But, we don’t hear from the folks when the dolphins took them the other way. Maybe the dolphins that pushed to shore just got lucky.

I also started noticing that success stories often includes information about how the discoveries were not planned, but were accidentally stumbled upon while the great leaders were trying to do something else. Sometimes these leaders even resisted going the direction the discovery led them because it didn’t fit their original vision.

Finally, I started seeing the dumb luck that is a part of almost every success.

When I look at success, I try to remember its causes can be elusive and that the easy explanations are usually incomplete.

Capitalism works well for us because it encourages a lot of trials.

I believe organizations can improve (not guarantee) chances of long-term success by employing the same incentives as capitalism. Encourage a lot of trials. Let failures fail and reward success.

We even have evidence of this respect for trials embedded in common, inspirational phrases like:

  • If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again
  • Fail often to succeed sooner
  • If you fall off the horse, get back on

But, perhaps one quality of the successful that I may have overlooked is that they aren’t afraid to fail.

You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take. – Wayne Gretzky

I didn’t fail the test, I just found a 100 ways to do it wrong. -Ben Franklin

I’ve never been afraid to fail. -Michael Jordan

7 thoughts on “One reason bottom-up does better: Try, try, try again

  1. You can add what my Hydrology Professor use to say:

    It’s not a Trial and Error method,
    It’s Trial and Success.

  2. Fits well with the CrossFit saying (which they undoubtedly stole from someone else): “Ready, fire, aim”. As in, don’t think too hard about what you’re doing – instead, try it, see what happens and then adjust from there.

    • I like it. That is good.

      And I can see how that applies to diet and exercise.I know so many folks who 2nd guess and talk themselves out of trying something new because they’re not sure it’ll work. Yet the cost of trying is so small. I tell them, “Give it a try for a week and see if it makes a difference.”

      • You’ve hit on something powerful there – people’s ability to talk themselves out of acting. They get an idea (ready) but then they look at the target (aim) and realize they might miss so they never take the shot at all. The secret to generating lots of trials is to simply fire when you are ready rather than aiming (overthinking) so much.

        I find this to be one of the most difficult ideas to convey to students – that failure is not just okay but a necessary part of the process of learning.

  3. Pingback: Bottoms-up vs. Top-down: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket | Our Dinner Table

  4. Pingback: Bottom-up vs. Top-down: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket | Our Dinner Table

  5. Pingback: Bottom-up vs. Top-down | Our Dinner Table


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